Lesley Riddoch: Are we losing our bottle on recycling?

Irn-Bru manufacturer A G Barr has been running its cash back for bottles scheme for 110 years. Picture: TSPL
Irn-Bru manufacturer A G Barr has been running its cash back for bottles scheme for 110 years. Picture: TSPL
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THE end of the deposit scheme for Irn-Bru goes against what the public says it wants and won’t help us hit our recycling targets, writes Lesley Riddoch

A little bit of history ends this week, when Barr brings 110 years of cash for empty bottles of Irn-Bru to an end. The company says council kerbside collections have proved so successful that the number of returned bottles has halved – despite payouts rising from 20p to 30p a bottle in 2008.

Barr concludes the bottom has fallen out of the market because recycling is doing so well. So the firm has invested in new machinery and scrapped the old bottle-washing process, saving on energy and thousands of gallons of water. Scotland’s other national drink will still be sold in bottles, but according to boss Robin Barr; “People’s social conscience will not be troubled when they put a bottle in the bin because they know it’s going off to be recycled.”

Ecologists strongly disagree, insisting there’s no way Scotland will hit hugely ambitious recycling targets unless consumers stop thinking of containers as disposable waste and start thinking of packaging as a resource.

Surely they are right. Of course Scots are recycling more. According to Zero Waste Scotland, our household waste has decreased by 20 per cent between 2007 and 2013 and almost a quarter of Scottish councils had a household recycling rate of more than 50 per cent in 2013. Not bad.

But Scots won’t get anywhere near the tougher targets of 60 per cent by 2020 and 70 per cent by 2025 unless we realise recycling doesn’t mean either kerbside collection or bottle deposits – it means both.

The good news is that the public is supportive. Research for the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland (APRS) this summer found 79 per cent of Scots back a deposit and refund system for drink bottles and cans. Only 3 per cent actively oppose it. The Scottish Government has the power to introduce such a scheme and charities including RSPB Scotland, Ramblers Scotland, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, environmental charity Fidra and Changeworks Recycling have just called for a Scottish deposit return system as the natural next step to the plastic bag levy, which reduced usage by 80 per cent in its first six months of operation. So what are we waiting for?

They are, of course, technical snags. Small shopkeepers say they have no room to store so many bottles, no time to process them, no space for refund machines and no desire to be inundated with containers bought in bulk at supermarkets but returned locally in dribs and drabs. Drinks manufacturers say the requirement for different labels on products sold north of the Border will create expense and confusion. It’s also suggested that those without cars will be disadvantaged. Fair points – but it does make you wonder how car-free weans and Barr both managed the deposit-return scheme so well for so long.

Perhaps the real issue is cost. Campaigners say a Scottish scheme would cost £15 million to set up and a further £63m to run every year – a third of those annual costs would be offset by income from recycled materials and a further third by unclaimed deposits (essentially a bottle tax on all consumers). Producers would be expected to foot the remaining bill.

Doubtless many would regard that as money well spent if it tackled the widespread problem of litter in Scotland. The Scottish Government has estimated that three drinks cans and four plastic bottles can be found in every 100m of Scotland’s motorways and trunk roads. And after Hogmanay streets in towns and cities will be awash with cartons, bottles, paper and cans.

Certainly Scots seem to have acquired a takeaway and chuck away food culture. But street food has long been commonplace across mainland Europe, without street littering. Is that down to clever recycling schemes or a different cultural outlook – or both?

Environment secretary Richard Lochhead is said to be thinking about adopting the deposit refund scheme that operates in Sweden, where they add a small deposit to the cost of a drink and refund it when cans and bottles are returned.

The Swedish scheme has achieved recycling rates of 85 per cent and generates high value materials to feed the country’s vast recycling industry.

But can Scotland hope to emulate Sweden – a country in which recycling has become something of an art form? It strikes me there’s no coincidence that progressive nations like Sweden produce citizens engaged enough with the public good to want to protect it. Sweden not only has the highest proportion of recycled material in the developed world and the highest proportion of renewable energy in its energy mix (62 per cent compared to the UK’s shameful 4 per cent) it also has the highest turnout (more than 90 per cent) at local, national and even European elections. Its welfare state, known as the “People’s Home,” provides the best elderly care in Europe, excellent and affordable childcare and some of the best state education – despite a brief interlude of Conservative rule. Sweden places a very high value on inclusion and local control and has one of the smallest income gaps between rich and poor in the developed world, so it’s easier for individuals to see themselves as agents of change and valued citizens – people whose actions matter. In Scotland, by contrast, the income gap is one of the highest in Europe, remote local authorities are the largest in Europe and many view the public domain, the countryside and even the streets as foreign territory – belonging to someone else. When some Scots place so little value on their own physical health that urban areas have life expectancies shorter than folk in the Gaza strip, it would be naive to expect the state of the local environment to command great attention –particularly amongst the 50 per cent of those in wards of multiple deprivation who live less than 500 yards from derelict buildings. The L’Oreal advert may be cringe-worthy but its underlying message is sound enough. If the world screams “you’re not worth it” often enough, it takes a herculean act of will power to decide that your health, your actions and your surroundings matter.

This is not to argue against a modest bottle deposit scheme for Scotland. It is to argue that a litter-free country requires healthy and empowered citizens – a bigger and longer term project altogether.